As everyone around me is always preparing for the impending collapse of society or our yearly ritual of hurricane survival, one of the main causes of concern is having access to a reliable vehicle. But what is a reliable vehicle? Is there a certain make or model? Is it a newer or older vehicle? The answer most folks maybe would prefer not to hear is that any car can be a reliable vehicle if it is properly maintained and cared for. For those clenching their jaw with fear while you read this, consider this the start of your car care and maintenance journey, à la Marie Kondo—your vehicle will spark joy.
Hi, my name is Alice Pye and on April Fools’ Day in 2017 I bought a stick shift 1963 Ford F-100. I affectionately named her Betsy, like the Beach Boys song. At the time of purchase, I had no idea how to even begin to change a tire let alone drive a manual transmission vehicle. Since buying my truck I’ve rebuilt the transmission (twice), swapped out the engine (also twice), rebuilt the carburetor (at least twice), rewired a majority of the electrical system, and somehow figured out how to drive a stick shift truck that’s half a century old across the entire damn country, from California to New Orleans. I have learned a lot along the way, but most importantly that taking care of your car is the easiest and least expensive way to always have a reliable vehicle, no matter what type you have. Do not fear, it’s not rocket science. Well, actually, it’s only a little bit like rocket science, but that’s when Elle Woods says “What, like it’s hard?”
Does Your Car Spark Joy?
The first step in maintaining your vehicle is learning about it. Whether it’s your first car or your 692nd car, even if it’s never been described as reliable before, there is hope. First, I’d like to encourage you to just open the hood and look inside. I promise, even if it makes a ton of weird sounds, there are no monsters in there. If you take away one thing from reading this article, I hope it is just learning how to confidently open and close the hood of your own car. The amount of confidence you will feel just popping that bad boy open in front of a bunch of dudebros in an AutoZone parking lot will make you feel like the most powerful being on the planet. I cannot recommend it enough.
Once your hood is safely open, you will come face to face with all the guts of your vehicle. Everything under the hood is generally called the engine bay, and this is where your car engine lives. Let’s see if you can identify what kind of engine is in your vehicle. There are three bits of information that you will need to seek out:
How many cylinders does your engine have?
Most cars or trucks will have 8, 6, or 4 cylinders. You can usually figure this out by counting the spark plugs as there is one spark plug per cylinder (As a side note, Spark Plug would be an absolutely adorable name for a dog). The easiest way to look for spark plugs would be to look for the spark plug wires and count those. These wires are round and about a quarter-inch in diameter, which is likely going to be the largest wires you see going directly to the engine block (which is the big central hunk of metal under the hood). Where each wire connects with the engine, the wire will end in a rubber covering that can be either L shaped or straight. This is called a spark plug boot, which is just a cute little hat for the spark plug.
What is the layout of the cylinders?
Most engines will be in a V shape or in a straight line, called inline. A V8 engine will have two sets of 4 cylinders in a V shape. A V6 engine will have the same shape but with 3 cylinders on each side. An I6 or straight 6 engine has all 6 cylinders upright in a line; an I4 is the same but with 4 cylinders. There is also a flat or “boxer” engine configuration where the cylinders are flat on their sides, but that likely means you’re looking at a Porsche, and you probably don’t need my help anyway.
What is the displacement of your engine?
This is usually measured in liters (L), cubic centimeters (cc), or if you’re real old school, cubic inches (ci or cid). This one is a bit hard to figure out just by looking at your engine, so you may want to refer to your owner’s manual or try reading any informational stickers that you see under the hood in the engine bay.
My truck currently has an I6 4.9L or 300 cid engine. Let’s break that down: It is a 6 cylinder engine where the cylinders are arranged in a straight line or Inline, hence the “I;” and there is 4.9L or 300 cubic inches of displacement. It is commonly referred to as the Ford 300 engine, but only if you want to sound like a real big nerd about it.
I bet at this point you are wondering what the heck displacement actually means. Congratulations! You’ve made it to the kind-of-like-rocket-science part of this article! Simply put, displacement is the volume of air your engine is capable of pushing through in one cycle or rotation. If this is confusing for you, just ignore it completely. Knowing the displacement helps you identify your engine so you can easily look for car parts online, but understanding how it works won’t really matter unless you want to hot rod your car and start drag racing. All you really need to know is that usually more displacement equals more power. Or if you want to impress your super weird uncle who’s real into Rat Fink or Von Dutch, you can proudly proclaim the following platitude: There’s no replacement for displacement!
As an example, the biggest trucks will usually have around 7L of displacement. Smaller trucks or bigger passenger cars will have around 5L of displacement. Small cars and even some big motorcycles will have around 2L of displacement. Of course, these are just guidelines to help you figure out where your engine falls on this scale. If your owner’s manual was not helpful, or has disappeared from this realm somehow, another good way to figure this out is by Googling the make, model, and year of your vehicle. There were likely only a few sizes of engine available and this means you can narrow it down from there.
Hell yeah! You did it! You are Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road! You are Gadget from Rescue Rangers! You are Sara “Sway” Wayland in Gone in Sixty Seconds, Nic Cage not needed! Now you can close that hood proudly and loudly to let everyone on your block know that you are pretty much a master mechanic and all your neighbors should really be considering you for their zombie apocalypse/hurricane evacuation team.
All fun and games aside, caring for the things you own is important. If you care for and maintain your car properly you are helping save it from an early death and not just filling up yet another landfill. You are saving money for more important things in life, like hurricane libations. And you tap into that incredible magic of caring for the things that will care for you when you most need them.
Got questions about your car, truck, SUV, or other engine-powered vehicle? Email email@example.com.
Illustrations by Deanna Larmeu